It seems almost obscene to be considering the politics of vaccines given the grave danger posed by the ongoing COVID pandemic to public health. The Delta variant is ripping through the country at an alarming rate, mostly posing severe threat to the unvaccinated but with a disturbingly high breakthrough frequency among the vaccinated as well. Florida has reported 21,683 new Covid cases today alone–a devastating indictment of Governor DeSantis’ refusal to take the pandemic seriously.
But tackle the politics we must, because so much of the country’s failure to control the Covid pandemic from the start has been due to Republican political calculations. Then-president Donald Trump didn’t want to take the necessary steps to control the pandemic because he was afraid they might spook the stock market and cost him re-election. They further cynically calculated that Covid would affect people in cities and blue states the most, and that both the demographic devastation and electoral pain of the pandemic would be born by Democratic constituencies and blue state governors. The recall against California Governor Gavin Newsom was driven by conservative outrage over school closures and lockdowns.
The toxic stew of QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories and white supremacist beliefs that permeate the GOP base has made it easy for vast numbers of Republicans—and many converts from the left-libertarian woo-and-crystals world—to falsely believe that Covid is a hoax or intentionally built by Anthony Fauci in a Chinese lab, that Democrats are using mask mandates as a pretext for broader authoritarian crackdowns of some sort, that vaccines are part of a “Great Reset” conspiracy to kill off the world’s population, and that white people’s and Crossfit enthusiasts’ immune systems will protect them somehow from the virus. It’s easier for Republican politicians to pander to and exploit these beliefs than to educate their own voters.
But there’s also another darker political calculation at work. Since Biden’s election, the Republican strategy has been simple: sabotage the Biden administration’s goal of vaccine-based herd immunity, thereby damaging the economy and forcing more unpopular measures to control the spread of the Delta variant. Either pandemic-exhausted voters will rebel at the prospect of a new round of controls and mask mandates, or the virus will overload ICUs and kill a million Americans by the midterms–which Republicans will then blame on Biden and Democrats (as Trump just did yesterday.)
But there is reason to believe this strategy may be not only sociopathic but also too clever by half. Most Americans have now been vaccinated, and it is abundantly clear that the Delta variant is primarily a plague of the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated least capable of persuasion are primarily base Republicans, and partisanship is one of the single strongest predictors of vaccination status.
And vaccinated Americans are getting fed up with being put at risk and potentially forced into further restrictive measures by the politically hostile and belligerently unvaccinated. Republicans (and their useful tools like Glenn Greenwald) have been caterwauling about the prospect of vaccine mandates and passports, soullessly comparing them to the Nazi Holocaust. Many red states have pre-emptively banned any public or private measures to implement restrictions based on vaccination status.
But it turns out that vaccine mandates and passports are extremely popular:
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they’d support federal, state or local governments requiring everyone to get a coronavirus vaccine, according to a new survey conducted by The COVID States Project…
By the numbers: 64% of respondents said in June or July that they’d support government vaccine requirements, a slight bump up from the 62% who said the same in April or May.
- 70% said they’d support vaccine requirements to get on an airplane; 61% support requiring children to be vaccinated to go to school; and 66% support requiring college students to be vaccinated to attend a university.
- A majority of every demographic subgroup except Republicans said they’d support vaccine requirements. Only 45% of Republicans said they approve of such mandates.
- A majority of respondents in all but three states — Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota — said they support requirements that everyone be vaccinated.
There was a great deal of speculation about a week ago when everyone from Fox News hosts to Republican politicians suddenly started encouraging their viewers and voters to get vaccinated: was it because they were afraid of the electoral implications of large numbers of Republican voters dying of Covid, or because of the stock market dip predicated on Delta variant fears, or because of something else?
It’s entirely possible that they saw some devastating polling numbers like these. If around 70 percent of Americans become vaccinated, partisanship becomes inextricably linked with vaccination status, and 65-70 percent of Americans who actively want to see vaccine mandates and passports implemented are either sickened by an endemic Delta variant or forced by circumstance to limit their enjoyment of life because of a toxic pro-virus movement primarily associated with the Republican Party, that could lead to serious electoral consequences. If Covid does end up felling over one million Americans, conservatives can try to place the blame on Biden and Democrats–but it’s not at all clear that voters will buy that when the variant is doing the most devastation among belligerently unvaccinated Republicans in red areas. And unlike many other issues that favor Democrats electorally, this one is deeply personal and rage-inducing for the vaccinated.
It is conventional wisdom that Republicans are well enough positioned to win the House and Senate in the 2022 midterms that it would take an act of breathtaking incompetence to fail. The path to House and Senate majorities in 2022 still run through purple suburban districts and states with a balance of urban and rural populations. It is difficult to see how Republicans will succeed if they are associated with a white evangelical anti-vax movement putting 70 percent of Americans directly into harm’s way. Whatever advantage they seek from sabotaging the Biden administration’s public health and economic response may wind up costing them more than they gain–not only in real human lives, but in seats in Congress as well.